Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Corona Virus: Coping with Fear and Uncertainty

Facing unknowns is very difficult. In the face of an epidemic, we are uncertain how to respond. Threatened by contagion, terrified by unknown risks, we move into survival mode. We worry. We ruminate. We have the urge to connect and the fear of contamination. We want to lock the door; but fear isolation. We become saturated with media warnings and shaken by shards of frightening information and even conspiracy theories. Fear can pull us into anger and blame that rarely takes away risk and uncertainty. If anything, it exhausts our resources for planning and coping.


Strategies For Dealing With The Fear And Uncertainty Associated With The Corona Virus

Shift Thinking from “What if” to “What I can do Now?”

Remain Informed – We need to get the latest most valid information on guidelines for prevention by the media and then plan accordingly.

It is worth comparing differing sources to glean what seems most valid i.e. medical information from medical sources.

The World Health Organization has listed Guidelines.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) has created guidelines for families on talking with their children. We need to consider that the isolation or quarantine that people fear may be mediated by the reality that social media is a well-practiced way we stay in touch with loved ones. This is the time to be certain that elderly relatives have access to a phone.

The sense of helplessness is what is terrifying to adults and children.

Provide facts to children and teens about what is going on now and information to reduce their risk of being infected-in words they understand depending on their age.

An Antidote To Helplessness Is A Plan Of Action.

  • On a day to day we are told we need a routine of washing our hands or sanitizing our hands after being in public situations outside the home from grocery stores, public transportation, schools etc. as an important precaution for everyone.
  • We have been warned not to hug and shake hands outside the home and to instead elbow pump, wave or say – “ We are staying safe by not hugging.”
  • We have been told that this virus spreads through surface touch -Read this and share with family. How to Stop Touching Your Face

Family Practice Routines vs. Worry

A family might set up a practice routine where everyone:

  • Practices Elbow bumps to say hello,
  • Packs hand sanitizers and tissues in their bags together to use throughout the day.
  • Practices using a tissue or sneezing into their elbow vs their hand if needed.
  • Practices immediately washing their hands while singing “ Happy Birthday” before eating anywhere and when they return home.

Family fun practicing does not lessen the importance of prevention and safety- it replaces fear and helplessness with  connection and action.

Making Preparations:

  • Families can make lists of supplies they will need if asked to remain at home.
  • All family members could contribute to the lists.
  • Parents and children might be thinking of all kinds of activities they might plan to do.
  • In some cases plans need to be made ahead for relatives to come as caregivers or who need more care.

Emotional Bonds

  • A universal factor that mediates our experience of uncertainty is our connection with familiar networks of support (family, friends that are family and pets) The bond in such groups offers predictable support and validation.
  • Hold on to those bonds through creative means if contact or social media contact is not possible. Go through pictures, draw pictures to be given at a later time. Children can be encouraged to write their story of the situation. A family diary can be kept with everyone adding even one sentence of good, bad, funny, unexpected events, thoughts and feelings each day…
  • Given the parent-child stress connection, we know that a parent’s own stress regulation and sense of constancy is a reliable resource that offsets the impact of the unexpected for a child.
  • Parents are the physical and emotional lifeline for their children. If the parent can find ways to regulate anxiety and deal with uncertainty – the children will feel safe.

Reducing Anxiety and Worry by Working from the Body Out

One of the most important ways to cope with fear and uncertainty is to pay attention to body rhythms.

  • In his book, Uncertainty, Jonathan Fields speaks of the importance of personal rituals as certainty anchors to offset the unpredictable and stressful aspects of life.
  • Daily routines like exercise of any type, biking, running, playing ball, walking your dog,  playing outside with children are all invaluable in lowering stress.
  • Connection around fun activities a four-way crossword puzzle, watching an evening sitcom (laughter is a great stress reducer), listening to your favorite music, all reduce the hyperarousal associated with the body’s fight/flight stress reactions.
  • Children big and small can reset calm through connection with pets, favorite toys, playing musical instruments, listening and even dancing to music or some version of that.
  • In frightening situations small is bigShutting off the news and taking a walk, coloring or cooking a new recipe equate to stress reduction.
  • Do anything in any way at any time, alone or with others that makes you laugh!

Sleeping is crucial in regulating the anxiety and worry that disrupt body’s rhythms.

  • A recent study on the impact of fear on insomnia offered unexpected results. Whereas it was predicted that the greater the fear, the greater the insomnia or lack of REM sleep, the finding showed that it was a subject’s response to safety that was the important factor. Regardless of how much fear a person had (as measured by startle response) the ability to re-establish a sense of safety made the difference in sleep.
  • With that in mind, children and adults need bedtime rituals to create safety. There are many options in this culture. Anything that resets your sense of safety from free mini relaxation sessions http://www.calm.com/to your favorite book, blanket, meditation or prayer can make a difference. The consistent use of it conditions your mind and body for a respite.

Becoming Informed-Not Flooded

  • The urge in the face of the Corona Virus is to be vigilant about gathering information. The problem is that there is a tipping point between being informed and being flooded.
  • We need to moderate our media exposure as well as our continual focus on what is frightening.
  • The mind-body connection is such that if you are subject to non-stop media news, or versions of predicted doom, your nervous system will be so strained that you are likely to be too depleted to make sound judgments when they are needed.

Balancing Your Focus

Balancing your focus on the Corona Virus with your focus on what you can control in your daily life is crucial.  Focus on what you need to do and what you love to do.

  • It might surprise you to consider that doing daily chores is actually a stress reducer at difficult times. They are achievable goals and no matter how big or small they switch your focus from what you can’t do about the Corona Virus to what you can do with the dishes in the sink, the taxes, the clothes you needed to fold or the chair you wanted to paint.
  • What children need to be able to do in uncertain and frightening times is play – In times of school closings -with siblings, alone and with loving adults. Play is escape. It is magical, it is controllable, it is enjoyable, it is necessary.
  • For adults getting into the flow with something that you enjoy doing is like playing – it is a wonderful antidote to stepp out of stress into your world of art, music, reading, movies, etc.
  • Living your life the best way you can in spite of fear, fuels the resilience you need to deal with what you cannot control.

The Power of Connection

How do we use connection when contact is discouraged to prevent contagion?

Here are two of many possible and powerful things you can do that foster connection – Loving Kindness Meditation and Prayer

Loving Kindness Meditation

Developed by Sharon Salzburg, Loving Kindness Meditation is an ongoing meditation practice worth reading about and using for centering, stress reduction and emotional well-being.

For now, even if you have never even considered meditation –Try this -Pause and take a deep breath,  focus on someone you love, picture them and say inwardly “ May he/she/they be free from danger, may they have mental happiness, may they have physical happiness, may they have ease of well-being.” ( Even for a moment you have shifted from stress to loving connection).


After 9/11 people crowded to churches, synagogues, mosques and houses of worship. In the face of the unthinkable, they needed to reach beyond what they could do. At the time I wrote a blog called it “ Finding God in Unsafe Places.” We seem to be in that type of place again.

Whether or not spirituality is a central part of your life, don’t hesitate to pray in your way. Whether it is looking at the stars or waiting for the sunrise, the peace and connection you reach for offers a respite on your way.

Stay Safe -Stay Hopeful


Be sure to listen in to Psych Up Live as Sue Badeau discusses “Helping Adults Caring for Children who have Faced Trauma.”


More About Coronavirus: Psych Central Coronavirus Resource